Gnome Stew asked an interesting question recently, in Fair or Foul: Unexpected GM Fait. They described a situation that was impossible for players to overcome with a specific skill set. In this case an Elf in Shadowrun was attempting to charm her way past a Troll guard. The GM told the player to not bother rolling because there was no chance of success. An argument erupted over the issue as the player thought the situation was unfair because it meant that 25% of the time her skill set was going to be useless, and she should have been told at character generation. The argument ultimately was never resolved and the players ended up bending to the GM’s will. So they asked, was this fair or foul?
It makes me wonder though why the GM decided to take such a hardline stance by announcing that the player didn’t have a chance. While I don’t disagree with the GM’s choice of making it so Troll’s don’t have an attraction to elves I wonder why he didn’t just add enough modifiers to make success practically impossible? Which leads me to my question, is it better to announce that a player has no chance of success or is it better to give them the illusion if you are only going to smack them down anyway?
On one hand I find not telling the players they don’t have a chance to be a bit more realistic, most of the time we have no idea if a plan is going to succeed or fail right off the bat. Sure we generally have an inkling and our experience gives us an edge but to blatantly inform the player strikes me a bit too much of a deus ex machina (thank you word of the day calendar) for my taste. Obviously working this type of edge into game mechanics is a bit tough and some thought should be put into the subject before implementation.
Giving the illusion of success allows the GM a bit more freedom to craft the story to his liking. Announcing the success/fail in such a crass manner comes across a bit power hungry and unwilling to play nice with others. Illusion in roleplaying games is everything why take it away from the players?
How would you have handled the situation? Would you craft a nice excuse or would you have just told them to not even bother?